East of Africa: City of the Thousand

In Antananarivo, the French colonial influence is everywhere: spired churches sit atop the city’s prominent hills. Pretty jacaranda trees line Lake Anosy, which wraps around a war memorial statue in the center of the water.

A large defunct train station sits negelected at the end of a wide boulevard. The sign below the grand clock spells the city’s old French name: “Tananarive”. Horse-drawn carriages and 1960′s Renault and Citroën taxis jam the stone-covered roads, with crackling radios blaring out a french news broadcast.

In this sense, Antananarivo feels like a fractured, soiled apparition of Paris.

But unlike most of the capital cities in Southern Africa, Tana was already a major city before colonization. Around 1625, King Andrianjaka conquered the twelve sacred hills of the city and established it as the capital. He named the city Antananarivo, “City of the Thousand”, because of the thousand guards that were kept to watch over the new establishment.

After the French captured the city in 1895, they remodeled many parts of it to host the growing population and improve transportation for trade and manufacturing. The population of Tana expanded from 100,000 to 175,000 by 1950, which has since exploded to a staggering 1.4 million people after independence in 1960.

The surge in growth, an unstable government, and a struggling niche economy has left many on the streets.There’s undoubtedly a strange beauty and exoticism possessed by the city, but also an almost equally dark and heavy atmosphere in the streets.

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Mothers with small babies wrapped on their backs come and walk alongside me for several street blocks, holding out their hands and saying in a hushed, raspy voice: “le medecin pour le bebe, s’il vous plait”. Their requests need no translation, but I’m rarely able to justify the act of handing out money on the streets in a foreign country.

Local people refer to the beggars as the “quatre-mis” or “kat-mis” for short. In post-revolutionary France, society was broken into three estates, with the poorest being in the third estate. The Malagasy slang term evolved out of the connotation that the beggars were below even the poorest of the third class. The forgotten ones. Useless to society. The lowest of the low.

I finally find that the only way to halt their pursuit is by stopping, and looking at them eye to eye, and regretfully shaking my head. It’s easy to keep walking and pretend to ignore the quatre-mis, and just as easy for them to keep following and keep begging. In that sudden moment of acknowledgement, there’s suddenly nothing left to say – nowhere left to go. We are two antithetical souls staring at one another on a busy sidewalk.

The mother turns around and walks away. I stand in the same spot, waching as the baby on her back bobs up and down with every step. The lump in my throat lodges a little deeper.

I decide to walk up a network of small streets to see the Rova – the Queen’s palace. A young man who claims to be a college student approaches me and says that he’ll show me the way, which I know will end with me handing over a couple thousand ariary (a few dollars) for his guidance. He’s pretty knowledgeable, and I have no problem with paying in exchange for historical information, so I walk with him through the neighborhood.

He tells me about the fire in the Rova, the mixed up political situation, and the riots that took place this past February. When I press him about his studies, he admits that he’s not yet a student but is saving up, and giving impromptu tours to help fund his dreams.

On the way back to the hotel, I deliberately take as many side streets and small alleyways as possible. I pass a group of boys playing on a half broken fooseball table, and practice a few more words of French.

Ahead, a busy Sunday market is closing for the day, and vendors package up scores of textiles, shoes, and cheap Chinese electronics. A large taxi-brousse fills its rows with as many people as possible, for the last ride of the day.

Eventually, I find my way back to familiar streets just in time for another Tana sunset, and take a moment to look out over the twelve sacred hills now painted in an orange glow. It may have started as the city of the thousand, but it’s now the city of a million; with requisite scars to bear from such growth.